The First 50

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

First an apology for missing last week’s post – I was in Australia and entered an internet black hole in rural Victoria from which I could not emerge until Tuesday!Now, I’m back and apart from a wee bit of jetlag (I never get over the confusion that it’s tomorrow in Australia already!), I’m also back online.

James’ great post yesterday on the importance of the opening line prompted me to think about the next crucial thing an agent usually looks for – a slam-dunk first 50 pages. When I was submitting manuscripts that was what agents typically requested after they had initially viewed a query letter and (possibly) the first chapter or detailed synopsis. How well I remember sweating over those first 50 pages when my agent asked for them to be sent.

Today, I still believe the first 50 pages are critical. Accounting for roughly the first 3 chapters or so, they are the vehicle by which the writer demonstrates his or her mastery of voice, plot and character and they establish the promise of the story to come: the hook that draws a reader in, the tension between the characters that will help propel the plot forward and the pace of how the mystery is likely to unfold. I have no doubt that agents can tell on the first page whether the writing is up to snuff but (in my opinion) it’s the first 50 pages that shows them whether the writer is likely to be able to deliver on the promise displayed on that first page.

In a classic novel ‘pyramid’ structure the first 50 pages (or so) help establish the status quo as well as the conflict or situation that is about to upend all of that. It is essential in these first chapters that the characters’ relationships and conflicts are brought into play. I also view these first chapters as the key to grounding the story – not by bogging it down in back story or exposition – but in drawing the reader into the world you have created so they are committed and compelled to continue reading. I need to have a clear sense of time and place established, be able to visualize and care about the main characters and understand their motivations. Achieving all this can be a challenge. Here are some of the pitfalls that inexperienced writers should try and avoid in those first 50 pages.

Packing it all in

Too much back story and character exposition can grind the story to a halt and nothing is more disappointing than reading a terrific first chapter, full of action, only to find the second chapter mired in explanations, background and description. The key is to continue to intrigue a reader with partial disclosures – everything doesn’t need to be revealed in one second or third chapter informational dump.

Plot takeover

Equally well, a breakneck plot that charges through the first 50 pages without stopping for breath can leave a reader disorientated and confused. I still believe a balance is needed in the first few chapters so that the reader can receive enough grounding in terms of the key characters to care about their circumstances. Thrills and spills are not enough.

Voice confusion/lack of strong POV

As James noted yesterday POV confusion can destroy an opening page – it can equally well derail the first few chapters. Writers need to beware of introducing multiple POVs in the early chapters that dilute the ‘voice’ or which confuse a reader. I think the strength of a great opening lies in establishing the voice that will move the story forward – and that counts for every chapter not just the first one.

So what do you think needs to be achieved in the critical ‘first 50’? What other pitfalls do you see, as writers and readers? What can you tell about a manuscript in the first 5o pages?

9 thoughts on “The First 50

  1. You’ve somewhat already mentioned this when you talked about the status quo and introducing the conflict, but I like to think of the first 50 pages as the place where we show the problem that needs to be solved. Our goal should be to show not only the status quo, but why the status quo is killing our protagonist.

  2. Excellent advice all around, Clare. New writers need to clearly understand what the following are: exposition, backstory, narrative summary and scene. They need to be writing scenes in those first 50 pages, as you well note. The other “stuff” is either to be avoided or nuanced in so as not to bog down the pace.

  3. Great advice, Clare. Sometimes new writers don’t understand the difference between information that the reader needs to know and information that only the author needs to know.

  4. You’re right that there is a lot that has to be packed into the first 50 pages–introducing the major characters, setting up the conflict, getting the plot direction going, all without making the pacing either too pellmell or burdened with over-explanation. It’s why we sweat over those pages so much. Bottom line: Writing is hard!

  5. Goodness, between James yesterday and yours today I feel like I am back in Creative Lit class. Only this time I am paying attention to more than the cute Asian girl in the next row.

  6. Timothy – you’re exactly right – the first 50 needs to really set out the problem that needs to be solved in a way that intrigues the reader. Jim, Joe and Kathryn – it’s amazing how much angst gos into writing isn’t it – that balance is so tricky to pull off especially in the first 50 pages when you’re tempted to display all that you know. Basil – sorry, it must be the teacher in me:) (Both my mum and my mother in law were teachers!)

  7. I need to become invested in something during the first 50 pages. It can be anything: a character or characters I like; the writer’s voice; the mystery; wondering what’s going to happen next. Something to make me care about what happens after. I’m not fussy about how it’s done, and I’m OCD enough to keep reading, anyway, but my mind is often made up about a book during those first 50 pages.

  8. Dana – I agree it’s the first 50 that gets me invested in the story…if I’m not after that I might just put the book down and not pick it back up again.

  9. I’m reading a book now, 3rd person close on the main character, where the author’s narrative voice is forever noticing things that the POV character wouldn’t, and including a ton of detail, endless endless details. It helps set the period but slows the read down far too much. This author lays off the “trying too hard” extras after about 80 pages, and the read is much smoother now and I’m looking forward to finishing it.

    This author also repeats a lot of material that could be dispensed with in summary, things the reader has already learned.

    Would love to hear how others solve the narrative POV question. How can you keep the author’s POV *out* of the narrator’s POV? Even F. Scott Fitzgerald did this once in Great Gatsby, that eerie sentence where the narrator addresses the audience directly — it’s not the POV character. But in the entire novel, he only did it once.

    Why wouldn’t this writer’s agent & editor have put them wise?

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